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As UW Football Ramps Up For Championship game, NeuroTrainer helps keep skills sharp

Fresh off a Sugar Bowl win, University of Washington (UW) Football team advances to the championship final with a 21-0 Pac-12 record against Big Ten Champion Michigan (14-0), their dedication to comprehensive athlete development stands out as a cornerstone of their success. Under the guidance of Coach McKeefery, UW has embraced innovative training methods, including NeuroTrainer, to ensure players are prepared not just physically, but mentally as well.

The importance of cognitive in football

In a sport where split-second decisions can change the game, cognitive skills like focus, attention, and decision-making are crucial. “Cognitive skills are something I’ve seen a lot of value in early on.” UW recognized the need to enhance these abilities in their athletes to maintain a competitive edge. “We.ve identified cognitive training skills they’re deficient in and creating training programs against those deficiencies.”

"Cognitive skills are something I’ve seen a lot of value in early on."

Incorporating NeuroTrainer into UW’s 2023 season

NeuroTrainer was introduced as part of UW’s holistic approach to training, addressing cognitive skills deficiencies with tailored programs. “NeuroTrainer allows us to objectively measure and develop our athletes’ visual, auditory and proprioceptive systems using unique and immersive media,” said Coach McKeefery. Its real-time adaptability and advanced neuroanalytics offer a personalized training experience that traditional methods lacked.

Data Analyst /Sports Scientist Ryan Croson says “It’s all about the holistic approach. NeuroTrainer assists in keeping their brains conditioned for the mental side of the game before they are allowed to progress to field-work/practice.”

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) lines up behind center Parker Brailsford during an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in East Lansing, Mich. (Al Goldis / AP)

Return to Play, Endurance and Quieting The Mind

With almost 200 sessions and over 1,000 minutes clocked by players in return to play protocol, NeuroTrainer’s Attention Flow Trainer (AFT) module helps players on the more intangible, yet no less critical cognitive elements of the game.

AFT’s primary “ingredient” in its cognitive training stack is multiple-object tracking, which has dozens of years of scientific research backing its effectiveness in a variety of use cases. In UW’s case, Coach McKeefery provided it to his return to play players, as a way of keeping them cognitively engaged while in return to play.

NeuroTrainer plays a role in RTP as both a primer and cognitive trainer to keep the brain fit while the athlete is not allowed to see the field due to physical setbacks. The mental processing of the game while practicing or playing is often lost when removed from the field for a long period of time. 

“With NeuroTrainer, it allows us to keep the cognitive skills sharp, lessening the mental reconditioning needed when they are able to return to practice,” says Croson. 

Athletes are seeing the difference. When asked about its impact in the return to play protocol, one player reported “I like NT because it helps with hand eye coordination and reaction time without having to be on the field. When you’re injured and not allowed to move much it is nice to still get the brain training effect without putting yourself at risk. Overtime, as the games progress I can feel myself getting more coordinated and confident in my abilities before transitioning back to the field.”

Increasing mental endurance with NeuroTrainer

Return to play is not the only effective use of AFT. It also has other additional cognitive benefits as a result of the development of neurochemical pathways during training. One is increased mental endurance, which is something UW has shown in spades this season, like when Washington went against then ranked #8 Ranked Oregon (now ranked #5) and came back with less than two minutes to score the game winning touchdown to win the game 36-33 and stay undefeated.

While still early in its implementation, NeuroTrainer has become a valued element in UW’s training regimen. Athletes have quickly taken to the engaging virtual reality environment, with quarterbacks and other key positions noting improvements in focus and situational awareness. The technology’s ability to serve as a primer for practice and games has been especially beneficial.

Coach McKeefery believes in training “the 6 inches between the ears” to control the “6 feet below.”

As the team gears up for the semi-finals, the integration of cognitive training tools stands as a testament to UW’s forward-thinking strategy. “Our athletes are not only elite on the field, but they are also elite in the classroom,” McKeefery adds, highlighting the team’s embrace of the science behind NeuroTrainer.

“The University of Washington is located in the heart of the Silicon Forest, and it is only natural that we stay connected to the latest technology and cutting-edge tools to train our athletes,” says Coach McKeefery. This innovative approach keeps UW at the forefront, blending traditional training with advanced technology to enhance player readiness and performance.

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